Greener Pastures: Managed Grazing (E2785)

As more farmers gain experience with managed grazing, more information is available to those looking to get started.

Why use managed grazing?

Farmers using managed grazing often describe it in terms such as “less stressful” or “family friendly.” Practical benefits come along with the lifestyle improvements.

Managed grazing goes by many names… rotational grazing, grass-based farming, management intensive grazing, prescribed grazing. But all the terms mean basically the same thing. Pasture is divided into smaller areas or “paddocks,” often using portable fencing. One paddock is grazed for a time, while the remaining paddocks rest and recover. 

  • Economic benefits. Most farmers who try managed grazing do so because it can save them money. Both start-up and maintenance costs are less than for green chopping. If you have already invested in a confinement feeding system, maintenance costs are reduced because the system is used only during the cold months. Once in operation, grazing reduces the costs of equipment, fuel, chemicals and labor. Managed grazing can also greatly increase the amount of forage harvested compared to continuous grazing.
  • Time savings. Some farmers are reluctant to try managed grazing because of the time it takes to move livestock. However, most farmers find that moving livestock is less time consuming than cutting, hauling and feeding greenchop. Farmers with large cattle herds find that moving 250 to 500 head at a time takes no longer than moving 50 head.
  • Environmental benefits. Compared to cropland, wellmanaged pastures decrease soil erosion, require only minimal fertilizer and pesticides, and greatly reduce the threat of barnyard runoff during the grazing months. Grazing can help reduce high soil phosphorus levels from excessive manure and fertilizer applications. Cropland converted to well-managed pasture can also help reverse the declining populations of grassland birds such as bobolinks, meadowlarks and upland sandpipers, and provide good nesting habitat for game birds such as pheasants, wild turkeys and quail.

Thinking about adopting a managed grazing system?

Ask yourself some basic questions about your operation and your goals.

To stay profitable in today’s farm economy many small-to-medium dairy operations are considering one of two changes - either modernizing and expanding, or a change to a managed grazing system. To make this decision you’ll have to examine your longterm goals for the farm and the lifestyle you and your family want to live. Farmers experienced with “grass farming” will tell you that 90 percent of the job is thinking, planning, and experimenting. Before getting started, you’ll need to ask and answer some questions about your operation and your goals.

Beyond answering the “big picture” questions, you’ll also need to analyze specific, practical issues about grazing on your farm. These include the availability of water or ways to get water to each pasture, the type and cost of fencing you’ll need, and the forages best suited for your livestock and your soils.

But most of all, you’ll need to ask yourself, “Am I willing to experiment with new approaches to farming?” Planning will help get you started with managed grazing, but learning on the job is the biggest part of the change. Here’s what some experienced graziers have to say about the change:

“Most of the things I’ve learned have been trial and error. I’ve found that just because something works on one farm doesn’t mean it will work on every farm.”

“Everyone’s herd is a little different, so I’d suggest doing this kind of experiment on your own farm. University research studies aren’t farm-specific. The best thing to do is experiment on your farm and take a chance on losing a little milk.”

“With grazing, the type of work changes dramatically and is much more enjoyable.”

“The biggest benefit of grazing is lower feed costs and less machinery investment and repair. But this benefit takes time because of the transition period when you’re running two farming systems.”

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